Interviewing Werner Herzog is a guilt-ridden experience. There's a lingering notion that he could be drafting a screenplay in the time it takes to ask him a question.
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Interviewing Werner Herzog is a guilt-ridden experience. That’s not to say he makes the questioner feel stupid or inferior, but there’s still a lingering notion that he could be drafting a screenplay or producing a film in the time it takes to ask him about doing those things. He’s written, produced, or directed (more often than not it’s all three) more than 50 movies. And it’s well known that he’d rather talk about what he’s doing than what he’s done.
Herzog shows strongman Zishe Breitbart (Jouko Ahola, far right) how to throw a barrel on the set of Invincible (2001).
Following that line of reasoning, this is not an interview that attempts to analyze Herzog’s work. That’s been done to death. If you want to know more about the specifics of his movies, watch them. And if you still want to sift through more anecdotes and thoughts on “ecstatic truth” and Klaus Kinski, pick up a copy of Herzog on Herzog.
At this point, we want to know more about how the man is capable of doing what he does at such a speed and sustained level of quality. In the past year he has completed two big-screen features with marquee actors for miniscule amounts of money (compared with the sums other directors and producers squander on what usually turns out to be inexcusable garbage). Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans stars Nicolas Cage in a liberal reimagining of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 scumbag cop saga, while My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is loosely based on a true story about a son who stabs his mother with an antique saber and features Willem Dafoe and Chloë Sevigny.
Somehow Herzog has figured out a way to beat Hollywood at its own game. If the soulless opportunists who make up the putrid core of the show-business industry had real hearts and brains, they would just copy what he’s doing instead of spending $200 million on movies based on action figures. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, so the best we can do is to ask him about the logistics of the film industry and how the hell he acquired such a voracious work ethic. Hopefully someone out there in la-la land is listening.
VICE: You’ve lived in Los Angeles for a while now, and your assertion that it has more substance than any city in the United States is one that puzzles lots of people. I think many assume that you’ve always had an antagonistic relationship with Hollywood.
Werner Herzog: I am never speaking of Hollywood; I speak of Los Angeles. But I have never been antagonistic with Hollywood either. For example, I am a great fan of Fred Astaire. Hollywood is a specific culture of cinema and has created very, very fine films. I’m just not part of the purely mercantile industrial production of cinema. It doesn’t affect me. You see, I have never been at parties, I’ve never been to red-carpet events, I do not see the films. I see maybe two films a year, three films a year. Hollywood doesn’t really have any relevance for me.
Even though you’re not part of the system, would you say that living in Los Angeles makes it easier to deal with the business aspects of filmmaking?
It’s not making anything easier. Filmmaking has always had its complications, but I’m not in the culture of complaint. Los Angeles is just a very exciting city. There’s great excitement, there’s vibrant culture, and there are a lot of things going on here that I wouldn’t relate to filmmaking, but yet they trigger films. For example, I was fascinated by the Galileo space probe, which at the end of an incredible odyssey was sent on a suicide mission into the atmosphere of Jupiter, where it burned into superheated plasma and was gone. Only 30 minutes from where I live there is a mission-control center in Pasadena, and because of this fascination with Galileo I found out that there was a completely unknown NASA archive in downtown Pasadena in a warehouse. I discovered footage of astronauts who filmed on 16-mm celluloid back in 1989, and it is such fantastic footage. In a way it was the backbone of a science-fiction film I made called The Wild Blue Yonder. So you see, the excitements are everywhere, and they don’t have to be connected with Hollywood or production companies.
You’ve run your own production company since your late teens. How are your practices different from Hollywood’s? Are actors and other people in the film industry taken aback by the way you run the show?
I’m always wearing the hat of a businessman—always. For example, I recently completed a film called Bad Lieutenant. I gave the guarantee that I would, as usual, stay on budget and hopefully under budget. In my entire life I’ve never gone over budget. Five times I’ve been under budget. Every single day I struggled to contain the amount of people that were being tossed at certain problems. I said, “No, it’s not a question of having four or five more people edit. It’s a question of intelligence. Let’s not hire these people, let’s forget about it.” So what happened is that I delivered the film two days ahead of schedule and $2.6 million under budget. Now the main producer, Avi Lerner, wants to marry me [laughs]. These are people who have done nothing but very, very commercial films, including the last Rambo. I’m totally at ease with these people, because I think like a producer as well. For example, I waived my right to have a trailer, a camping trailer on the set… What do you call it? What’s the expression for it in the industry?
I would just call it a trailer.
Whatever. I’m not even familiar with the terminology. But anyway, I waived my right to have a trailer, I waived my right to have a personal assistant, I waived my right to have a shopper, and I waived my right to have a chair with my name on it, which saved the production 65 bucks! But I hate those chairs anyway. I loathe them. I’ve never had a chair like that. They asked me, “But where are you going to sit?” I said, “I’m going to sit on a metal box or film magazines or anything that’s around.” Most of the time I would be standing anyway. And this isn’t just a personal quirk of mine—it set an example for the whole production. Some of the actors—some of them very big stars—seeing that, would not arrive with an entourage of 12 but with an entourage of two.
I want to ask you about some of your earliest days in America. You received a scholarship to study at a place of your choosing in the US. You chose Pittsburgh but quickly abandoned the scholarship. Then you were taken in by a rural family called the Franklins. I get the feeling that this period was pivotal in the way that you use American imagery in your films.
Very much of what you see in my film Stroszek is a distant echo of that time. I saw the best of America then. Of course, once I had abandoned my scholarship, I lost all the money. I lost my guest family, and I lost my free passage back. I had to live on my own and was taken in by a wonderful family. That’s what the spirit of America can be at its best. I’m forever grateful to the Franklins, but they represent more than just great hospitality. There’s also a frontier spirit still in them, and that’s something I really like about America. I also have some ambivalent feelings about America, but that’s OK.
Shortly after your time in Pittsburgh, you went to New York and then Mexico because you were facing deportation from the US. That was one of the first steps in what was to become a long-standing association with Latin America in your work.
My Bavarian spirit somehow seems close to Latin America, in particular to Amazonian Latin America. I think there’s an affinity to this exuberance of fantasy and fever dreams and imagination.
South America is where you’ve taken some of your greatest chances, and you’ve always commented on how important it is to take “calculated risks” as a filmmaker. But how do you personally calculate such perilous risks?
I always test things out on myself first. I’m good at assessing risks. However, I have to admit that one or two or three times I took risks that were just blind lottery. For example, in La Soufrière I filmed on top of a volcano that was about to explode. Nobody knew if it would happen in the next two minutes or the next two hours or the next two days. That film was about the expectation. Still, you shouldn’t do things like that too often.
La Soufrière is a good example of one of your many films where athleticism, or at least enduring very harsh and inhospitable conditions, was essential to the making of it. Are you worried about aging to the point where taking these types of risks and putting your body through these intense experiences are no longer possible?
No, I don’t really care about that. The connection between athleticism and cinema is in part, of course, metaphoric. It’s about the understanding of movement in space. That’s why I admire NBA players so much—how they move and how they understand space is just phenomenal. Besides, it is a statistical fact that a good amount of filmmakers have been quite athletic people. You don’t see that among painters or among musicians. I have never met a composer who was an athlete.
Another activity you recommend for aspiring filmmakers and other creative types is walking. Is that a hard thing to do in a place like California that’s overrun with freeways?
Here you have to have a car, otherwise you can’t function. But I’m not speaking of walking, per se. It’s something else—traveling on foot—that I am talking about. Normally it means longer distances. It does not mean ambling around, it doesn’t mean hiking, and it doesn’t mean backpacking. What I mean is really traveling on foot. I can only say one simple dictum: The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.
You’ve also said that cooking is a similar undertaking. What do you like to make for supper?
Oxtail, Spanish style. It’s a complicated one. I would say once a week I cook a decent meal. Many filmmakers are also very good cooks, including Les Blank, Francis Ford Coppola, and others whom I know.
You’re known for using the same cinematographers, cameramen, and other crewmembers throughout different phases in your career. How do you know when you want to work with someone new?
That’s a difficult question, but I think it’s like casting. You have to have it in you to see who will work right away, like, that’s the right actor for this film, or this is the right cinematographer for that film. If you don’t have it, you shouldn’t be a movie director. It’s a prerequisite of understanding your craft. I’ve done the last 12 or 14 or whatever films with Peter Zeitlinger, an Austrian cinematographer. However, I must say, doing films here in America like Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done immediately limits the possibilities because you have to use union people in some areas, and many of the people with whom I end up working are not whom I would work with if I were shooting somewhere like Peru or Europe. There are not union men in those places. But it doesn’t really matter. I always connect well with real professional people.
Do you think things like YouTube and other digital-distribution systems will help break apart the bureaucracy of filmmaking?
Well, the whole thing is still in its infancy, and crude and uncouth. When it comes to YouTube, you get the lowest common denominator out there, but in certain segments of it you may find very high-caliber things in the future.
These types of immediate distribution methods are also increasing the usage of digital editing and cameras. The latter is something you’ve always been wary of, but didn’t you just finish shooting My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done on video?
Yes, I did, but that was for financial reasons. You can’t make a film for around $2 million if you start shooting on 35-mm celluloid. I like to edit digitally because I work much, much faster. With digital editing you can work just as fast as you are thinking. But it has been a trap for some filmmakers who cannot decide quickly enough, and then they create 22 parallel versions and can’t decide which one to take. I plow through material very, very quickly. For example, Grizzly Man was edited in nine days. I also wrote the entire commentary, recorded it, and did a primitive mix—all in nine days.
In Grizzly Man, like most of your documentary films, you provide the narration.
I grew into this somehow. In the old days I had the feeling that, yes, I should do it, because I wouldn’t know of anyone who would be as credible as my own voice.
It does seem like the best person to narrate a documentary would be its maker.
It’s a question of credibility, and I don’t care how bad my German accent is. I make myself understood anyway.
Is the audience something that you actively think about when making your films?
I must confess that my audience has always been a big mystery to me. I do not know exactly who they are, or how they change, or how have I survived so many years with shifting audiences. The strange thing is that today I get more mail from young people—15, 16, 17 years old—than from people who are over 30.
That doesn’t surprise me. I think younger people might even appreciate you more than your own generation does.
I really do not know. However, I never make films for myself. I never circle around my own navel. I’ve always made films for audiences, even though I do not know who they are.
You’ve said that people should not intellectualize film, but what about your writing? Is that a different matter?
Literature does not need to be analytic, but you’re asking me this at the moment where the last thing that I published was Conquest of the Useless [see Vice V16N6 for an excerpt], which is based on the diaries that I kept when I made my film Fitzcarraldo. I think my writing will outlive my films. I will be starting my film school very soon, and I will make a point about a sense of literature for young people who want to step into filmmaking. One of the prerequisites will be that those who apply have to read this, this, and this.
It’s amazing that you’re starting a film school. Can you give me a sampling of what will be on your syllabus?
For example, Virgil’s Georgics. They don’t have to read it in Latin, but there are some good translations around.
I just watched your debut film, Herakles, for the first time the other day. You’ve said that it was your one great “blunder.”
Making that film was my way of going to film school. As a film it’s not that important, but what is significant about it is that, at that time, I was wondering, “How can I connect materials that have absolutely nothing to do with each other and combine them into a coherent sort of story line?” Combining the unthinkable is how you create film sometimes. It was a wonderful experience.
Outside of filming some operas, you haven’t made a short in quite some time. You also haven’t produced anything for television in almost ten years. Today, there are more channels and more ways of watching TV than ever, but that hasn’t seemed to increase the overall quality of programming. Do you still feel it’s a valid outlet?
I hardly watch any television, but I hardly watch any films either. And sometimes you don’t need to have big meaningful things on television. If you watch WrestleMania, it does not have a big, deep, plowing concept behind it; however, it is interesting to watch because you have to understand what is going on in the collective audience. As a poet, you must not avert your eyes. You have to understand in what sort of world you are living.
If I didn’t know your views on the subject, I’d assume you’re being ironic. You’ve said that you have a sort of communication defect in that you are unable to understand irony.
You have to make a clear distinction between humor and irony. And most of my films have a lot of humor in them, including even Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. And now just you wait for the real hilarious one—Bad Lieutenant.
I can’t wait. There’s been quite a bit of controversy around that film and no one’s even seen it yet. Abel Ferrara, the director of the original Bad Lieutenant, was outraged that you were doing what he considered to be a remake. But you steadfastly deny that it’s a remake and claim to have never even seen the original.
I don’t need to see the film that was made sometime in the 90s. Mine has a completely different story and a completely different setup. Basically what happened is that one of the people who had produced the first Bad Lieutenant held rights to the title, and they were hoping to establish some sort of a franchise. I don’t mind, I can live with the title, but I always felt it had to be something else. I tried to call it Port of Call New Orleans, but I couldn’t prevail. So now it’s Bad Lieutenant and then it has the subtitle of Port of Call New Orleans.
And if I’m not mistaken, you did not write this one, which is sort of an anomaly when compared to your other films.
Yes, it is a screenplay by Billy Finkelstein. However, I changed a lot in it. I changed the entire beginning and the entire ending. I have made a lot of modifications. I threw a lot of sequences out and replaced them with sequences that I wrote myself. But I won’t have any credit in the screenplay because the Writers Guild doesn’t allow that.
What drew you to this movie?
Well, there were a couple of things that were immediately intriguing. Nicolas Cage and I all of a suddenly realized that we had always somehow eluded each other, and that was very strange. Secondly, the prospect to make some sort of a film noir was intriguing, because film noir is always a consequence of deep depressions and the insecurity of the times. Classic film noir is a bastard child of the Great Depression, in a way.
And why do you say your Bad Lieutenant is so funny?
Just wait and see.
The other film you’ve just completed, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, is based on a nugget of truth about a man who stabbed his mother after becoming obsessed with Sophocles’ Orestes.
It’s loosely based on a real murder case. A friend of mine who has worked with me a lot, who is actually a professor of classics at Boston University, wrote the screenplay together with me. It fell dormant for a while, and then I had a conversation with David Lynch and I mentioned, “We should make films—real fine feature films—but not for more than $2 million, and we’ll still use the best actors and a great story. It’s possible,” I said, “and that should be the answer to the financial crisis.” And he said, “Do you have something in mind?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, I’d love to be on board as an executive producer.” I started to work on it a few days later. Otherwise Lynch doesn’t have anything to do with the substance of the film or the style of the film. He only read the screenplay, and he hasn’t seen the finished film yet.
There were some rumblings about you making a film based on The Piano Tuner, the historical novel by Daniel Mason. Are you working on that right now?
No. That’s a project that kind of fell dormant. Focus Features wanted to do it with me, and how shall I say… there was once an attempt to do a purely Hollywood version, but it never got off the ground. They asked me to do something that was closer to the book, so I wrote a screenplay where I changed a lot of the novel, and then they didn’t find it Hollywood enough [laughs]. It was kind of contradictory. They didn’t really know how to handle it, and I said, “Let’s wait. Things have to fall in place easily, otherwise we’ll constantly be struggling about this phrase or that phrase and this twist of the story and that twist of the story—it wouldn’t be healthy like that.”
What are you actively working on now?
I have five or six things, each a film project, pushing me. I may do more writing. I’m going to India fairly soon just to listen to a story of someone for eight days. But I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. And as I said, I’m starting my film school, which will basically be weekend seminars in various locations. But I will be my own film school. I’m not going to be affiliated with anything else.
Will it be called Werner Herzog Film School?
No. It will have a wonderful title, which I won’t reveal to you yet because it’s so good that I’m trying to get a trademark for it.
As of press time, Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done do not have release dates. With any luck, by the time you read this some suit in Hollywood will have wised up and figured out a way to get them into theaters.